Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

It is the greatest piece of Christmas music never written.

Our composer began writing Italian opera. But the London crowd is notoriously fickle, and by the 1730’s he switched to English oratorio. In the summer of 1741, encouraged by his wealthy patron (everyone needs a wealthy patron!), Handel composed his most famous work.

Much to his wealthy patron’s dismay, Handel decided to debut The Messiah in Dublin, just before Easter, 1742. Note the occasion, and the association that did not take. Meant to be Easter music, it become forever associated with Christmas.

The reasons are obscure. It wasn’t the verses selected, since only two of sixteen “scenes” have to do with Jesus’ birth. Perhaps it’s based on the connection between The Messiah and charitable giving, something we emphasize this time of year. Handel insisted that the proceeds of the concerts go to charity, in a city with its share of poverty.

More likely, the Christmas association is based on the majesty of those two early sections. From traditional Advent readings (“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”) to Isaiah’s prophetic words (“Unto us a child is born”), the stage is set for the centrepiece of this narrative: the annunciation to the shepherds. It culminates with the chorus “Glory to God in the highest.” He could have stopped there, but thank God he didn’t.

Now, maybe oratorio is not your thing. For you, I have another work of art, and another wealthy patron—this time The Coca-Cola Company. It was the mid-60’s, a time when companies would directly sponsor television programs, and hire producers to bring their vision to life.

The topic was ‘the true meaning of Christmas,’ and the producers did everything in an unconventional way: They were attempting to bring a comic strip to television, with parts voiced by actual children, without a laugh track, and with a jazz soundtrack. It had disaster written all over it. Both the producers and the network decided they had a flop on their hands, and were no doubt comforted by the fact that the bills were being paid by Coca-Cola.

The rest, of course, is history. A Charlie Brown Christmas won an Emmy and a Peabody, the soundtrack went triple-platinum, and both critics and children have debated since then whether it is the best Christmas special of them all. If I suggest you debate this question after the service, you’ll still be here at eleven, and you will be no further in deciding between Charlie Brown, The Grinch or Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer.

And if you are visiting this planet for the first time this evening, let me give you a thumbnail sketch: Charlie Brown is depressed about the over-commercialization of Christmas, and pays his nickel to Lucy for advice. She suggests he stage a Christmas play, which leads to a series of events (including acquiring a ‘Charlie Brown tree’) and the inevitable tantrum when we are asked ‘is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?’ Linus does, and once again, it’s the annunciation to the shepherds:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Stories can change lives. Countless millions have never been to church, but they know the true meaning of Christmas according to Linus and St. Luke. In fact, Peter Abelard said that just hearing the story of Christ’s death on the cross was enough to turn a heart of stone to a heart dedicated to God alone. And the same is true for the annunciation. Hearing that ancient message, meant for the poor ones and humble ones, we hear the essence of God greatest gift to us: A baby and a Saviour, God with us in a new way, once and for all.

Stories can change lives. On that first evening, April 13, 1742, the concert was sold out. Men were asked to leave their formal swords at home, and women encouraged to remove the hoops from their skirts to allow for more room in the hall on the wonderfully named Fishamble Street. Three charities were selected: prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary.

Nearly £400 was raised that first evening—a remarkable sum for 1742—and divided three ways between the charities selected. Following the delivery of £127 to the charity dedicated to prisoner’ debt relief, 142 prisoners were released from prison, the majority being held for debts less than a pound.

To quote our friend Linus, “that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”



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